Home > Book, Genre, nonfiction, Review > Book Review: Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams by Alfred Lubrano

Book Review: Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams by Alfred Lubrano

Workboots sit under a bright blue sky.Summary:
What do you call the approximately 1 out of 5 working class American kids who go to college and move into the white collar world?  Journalist Alfred Lubrano calls them Straddlers, and the world they live in Limbo.  Through interviewing experts on social mobility and class, therapists, and Straddlers themselves, Lubrano seeks to establish the unique challenges and triumphs of moving up the social ladder from blue to white in America.

Review:
I picked this up because I happen to be one of the Straddlers Lubrano is talking about, and I was curious to know both what about my experiences are common among all Straddlers and pieces of advice on navigating the interesting experience of being a Straddler.  The book brings to light the often overlooked issue of how changing classes impacts a person’s life, as well as real cultural differences among the blue-collar and white-collar classes in America.

Lubrano begins his book by defining blue and white collar.  A blue collar person can make more money than a white collar person (think of a successful plumber versus a struggling journalist).  Blue versus white collar isn’t about how much income a person generates, according to Lubrano.  What really makes the difference is 1) education level and 2) type of work.  The blue collar person may have an associate’s degree or a trade degree or certification.  The white collar person will have, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree.  The blue collar person generally works with their hands or in service industries.  The white collar person works in an office or on a computer.  Thus, what generally begins the change from blue to white collar is attending a four-year college.

The book next establishes the blue collar background the Straddler comes from, as well as establishing statistics on class mobility and class differences.  By establishing firmly the blue collar background the Straddler comes from and how that affects their thought patterns and approaches, Lubrano lays the groundwork for highlighting the unique struggles Straddlers go through in college and later at their white collar jobs and in their white collar surroundings.  The blue collar class elements Lubrano highlights include: being taught that working hard will get you what you want (the ideal of a meritocracy at all levels of society), distrust of the boss/upper-levels of management, intense loyalty to community and fellow workers, high value on obedience and conformity to community, patriotism, straight talking, and emotions being close to the surface and easily erupting.

The next section deals with the blue collar kid starting college.  Both blue collar families that push college and those that degrade it are discussed, as well as the reasons for both reactions by blue collar parents to college.  On the one hand, there are the parents who view college as a straight-shot meritocracy to a better job, better life, and better ability to live your dreams.  On the other hand, there are the parents who are afraid that they will lose standing in their own home if their child outsmarts or outshines them.  By and large, however, most blue collar parents fall in the former category.  Lubrano points out that blue collar parents don’t intimately know or understand the white collar world they are sending their children into, and thus unknowingly often give them bad information or false hopes.  To the blue collar parent, a college degree is a golden ticket, and so the blue collar child is pushed into a culture they are unprepared for.

Straddlers’ parents have such plans for their kids. With strong hopes but scant information, many push their progeny toward the vague realm of Something Better–the glorious middle class. Imbued with these dreams, Straddlers lurch awkwardly out of sheltering enclaves into unknown realms. On their sometimes troubled way, they become educated and awaken to class differences between the past and their would-be future. Priorities shift. Some values change, while some remain constant. Unlike many they meet in the new, white-collar world, these people are hybrids. That duality is their strength and their struggle, and will comfort and vex them throughout their days. (loc 611)

Next, the book tackles the blue collar / white collar culture clash that begins to occur when a blue collar person attends college and will continue throughout their life as a Straddler.  Lubrano does an eloquent job of addressing both how the Straddler struggles to understand the white collar world she now inhabits, as well as how the Straddler starts to change and no longer fits in among her family and blue collar people she grew up with.  The changes that often make a Straddler no longer fit in among her family include: language, leaving religion, and dietary choices.  College makes the blue collar kids change, and often their families are not expecting that.  Suddenly, the child speaks like a stranger, eats like a stranger, and no longer feels attached to the family religion. The culture clash between the working class college student and her new peers is perhaps a bit more obvious.  The monetary differences are clear immediately.  Peers often don’t understand the need to work or the high value of a dollar to their blue collar classmate.  More subtle and far-reaching than the different approaches to money, though, are the different approaches to life.  White collar kids are raised with self-esteem and feelings of entitlement that blue collar kids never knew existed.  They navigate campus with a sureness of belonging, and that surety will aid them throughout their careers.

The book next tackles how these class differences affect the Straddler’s career.  This is the most fascinating part of the book.  Most people probably expect that a blue collar kid going to college will experience some culture clashes and struggles with the family, but the idea that these struggles will continue past college is not obvious.  College is supposed to prep everyone for a career, but the fact is, oftentimes colleges leave the Straddler student floundering on their own. There are generally no classes on how to be white collar, you’re just supposed to know.  And it’s not always easy for the Straddler to just pick this up on their own.  Lubrano highlights the key areas in which the blue collar culture the Straddler was raised with clashes with the expectations of a white collar job and can hurt a career.

If you come from the working class, you haven’t got a clue how to conduct yourself when you first land in an office. You’re lost if you can’t navigate the landscape–if you follow blue-collar mores and speak your mind, directly challenging authority. Without tact and subtlety, without the ability to practice politics amongst the cubicles, an executive with a blue-collar background will not rise. (loc 2473)

Among the issues Lubrano highlights as frequently arising for Straddlers are a tendency to be lacking in tact, an innate disgust for and inability to handle the inauthenticity demanded by office politics, and a lack of understanding of the manner of dress expected in white collar jobs.  Additionally, blue collar homes often denigrate the boss or the man, demanding only loyalty to fellow workers.  White collar culture, on the other hand, demands loyalty to firm, not your coworkers, as well as an expectation that you will automatically desire to rise up the ladder and become the man.  Perhaps the most difficult skill for Straddlers to learn and appreciate is networking.  Blue collar homes teach you to leave work at work.  Family time is a sacred space.  White collar jobs expect extraneous socializing in the form of networking, additionally they expect the white collar workers’ whole family to participate in their career, when needed.  (Think of a networking dinner in the worker’s home).  This entire concept rubs the Straddler the wrong way.  Networking feels inauthentic and wrong, and the family space feels violated.  Additionally, the Straddler was raised believing hard work advances you, not who you know.  The idea that you advance farther by networking than by working hard can often sicken a Straddler.

I didn’t realize that doing a job well is no guarantee of advancement and opportunity. There are ways to get ahead that have nothing to do with hard work. But blue-collar people are taught that that’s a person’s only currency–you sell your labor and give the boss an honest eight hours….Along with blatant kissing up, networking and socializing with bosses and colleagues also are dirty words to some Straddlers. It all smacks of phoniness and is antithetical to their blue-collar backgrounds, which emphasize honesty in human relations–”real” relationships. (loc 2735)

The book next discusses Straddler’s romantic lives and experiences parenting their own white collar children.  Unless a Straddler dates another Straddler, they will end up dating someone who does not communicate the same way they do.  If they date a blue collar person, the same issues they have with their own family arise.  If they date a white collar (born and raised) person, then issues in communication similar to the ones they experience at work come up.  If the Straddler marries a blue collar person, that person will often feel threatened by their academic interests.  If the Straddler marries a white collar person, communication is often an issue.  White collar people are taught to manage their emotions and shut down when upset.  The Straddler was raised with emotions at the surface in a passionate manner.  This can freak out the white collar person, and in turn, the relative calm of the white collar partner can drive the Straddler crazy.

When it comes to kids, most Straddlers talk a lot about trying to keep their kids from having a sense of entitlement.  They want them to connect to their blue collar roots, to appreciate blue collar work, and to have blue collar values.  The Straddler wants their child to have to struggle, because they value the personal growth they themselves got out of it.

The book closes out with a discussion of what makes a successful Straddler.  Ideally, the Straddler will become bicultural.  Able to navigate both blue and white collar worlds, and appreciate the positive in both. Unashamed of where they came from and unashamed of where they ended up.

The more successful Straddlers–and by this I mean people who are comfortable with their lives–embrace their middle-class reality while honoring their blue-collar roots. Though they live in limbo, they choose to concentrate on the upside and what makes them unique. (loc 4175)

The book addresses a topic that badly needs to be addressed.  If one in five working class kids becomes a Straddler, that’s a huge sociological group that is often not discussed.  However, there are some weak points in the book.  Although Lubrano acknowledges that Straddlers can come from the city or rural areas, since he grew up in Brooklyn, he tends to focus in on those who come from the city.  He could have sought out more Straddlers to interview who grew up rural poor to get a firmer grasp on what their life experiences are like.  There are some subtle differences between city and rural blue collar.  Similarly, Lubrano mostly interviews people of the same generation as himself.  He conducts one series of interviews with three people from a younger generation, but primarily he interviews people from the same age-range.  Although it’s obvious these issues are consistent across generations, it would be a stronger book with multiple generation’s voices.  Similarly, the book came out in 2005, and an updated edition would be nice.

Overall, this is an engaging read that addresses the sociological issue of moving from blue collar to white collar class.  Interviews with both Straddlers and experts brighten and enlighten the text, although the book would benefit from a bit more variety in the Straddlers interviewed.  Recommended to anyone who is a Straddler themselves, as well as those who may educate or work with Straddlers and those with an interest in class differences.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

Buy It

Advertisements
  1. May 29, 2014 at 8:39 pm

    What a cool topic! It seems like the author covered the topic pretty thoroughly, despite the few limitations you mention, and I really liked how thorough your review was too 🙂

    • May 30, 2014 at 8:42 am

      Thanks! It was such a fascinating read, it was quite a bit of work to compile all of my thoughts on it. I’m glad it came across well 🙂

      It’s really a great book, and one I’d recommend most libraries add to their collections.

  2. gailae
    December 31, 2014 at 4:37 pm

    Loved this post!

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: